Soap can be a dirty business. Producing it requires messy chemicals and power-hungry machinery. There are by-products to dispose of and fancy packaging to wrap it in. And every time you use soap, you add more compounds to the water supply. Enter Mick Bremans, head of Ecover, a Belgian firm whose domestic cleaning products are made of natural plant and mineral ingredients. Ecover's range of washing powders, liquid soaps and cleaners are phosphate- and chlorine-free, and come in recyclable polyethylene bottles. The company has set up bottle-refill stations in health-food stores, and its customers sometimes send back bottles they have been using for more than a decade.
Ecover's green credentials are bolstered by its business success. It has taken on huge brands and carved out for itself a small but healthy niche, generating revenues of $93 million last year and turning a pretax profit of about $15 million. It has done this without spending much on traditional marketing, relying largely on word of mouth.
Bremans insists the eco-friendly approach comes second; Ecover is first and foremost a business. "Our products have to perform," he says. "If a business wants to survive, it obviously has to make profits. But then our attention goes to environmental responsibility, and we try to behave as sustainably as possible. That means trying to balance economical, ecological and social behavior."
Set up by an out-of-work soap salesman in a garden shed in 1980, Ecover launched its first phosphates-free products at a time when phosphates began attracting attention because of their impact on lakes and rivers. "We just wanted to make ecological products that happened to clean," says Bremans, who's run the firm since 1993. "Now we make cleaning products that happen to be green."
Ecover is based in the town of Malle in what Bremans calls the world's first "ecological factory." The building recycles wastewater, has shrubs and grass on its roof to save energy, and has no central heating or air-conditioning. Bremans has also reduced transportation, in part by sourcing perfume ingredients closer to home. The result: lower costs and fewer carbon emissions.
The company has its critics, including those who say Ecover detergents are not as powerful as their rivals. That's partly because Bremans, who insists his products work better than most other brands, shuns optical brighteners, which bind onto textiles to give an impression of whiteness but take years to biodegrade. Ecover also had to drop its Vegan Society logo after rejecting a cut-off date for animal testing despite Bremans' offer to donate his own blood as an alternative for some allergy tests. Still, the company has set a powerful example in its balancing of responsibility and profitability. "Ecover is not going to change the world," says Bremans. "But it does offer consumers a choice, and that choice is to take a small step to a more sustainable lifestyle."